11 January 2012

The Awakening of Faith

For the next several weeks, our post-meditation Dharma discussions will center on a text called The Awakening of Faith. It is canonical in East Asian Buddhism, and for good reason: it gives a clear map of the concepts and categories of Mahayana practice, with an eye toward practice. That is, when it explains how these bits of doctrine fit together into an elegant whole, it does so in order to give a grounding and motivation for practice. This slim volume pulls more than its own weight, and is very much worth the time it takes to dig into it on its own terms.

Two concerns about this text have been expressed to me. The first is that the text may not be authentic, because even though it is attributed to the Indian pundit Asvaghosa, it is probably of later Chinese composition. The second is that it seems weird to contemporary Americans to talk about faith in a Buddhist context, because isn't Buddhism some kind of ancillary to humanistic psychology or cognitive science and not really a religion? And isn't faith just a cipher for cultish behavior? Hm. These questions should be taken seriously.

On Authenticity: It is true that the Awakening was probably written by a Chinese author (or authors). This does not make the text any less authoritative or useful, however. There is an entire canon of Chinese-authored Buddhist materials that are by contemporary standards apocryphal, but from the point of view of practice, make a real contribution in that they present the Buddhist teachings in a way that is tangible to the community it reaches. Some examples of this would include the Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, and the Brahma Net Sutra. I do not think it is plausible that the historical Buddha actually gave these texts orally. I do not need to think he did in order to accept the premise that they may have something to offer contemporary readers. They do. The Awakening is like that: it is a text designed to reach people with the Mahayana message.

On Faith: It is true that Buddhism is a religion. There are matters of faith. But what is meant by "faith" here? The premise of the Awakening (and of our school of Buddhism generally) is that meaningful practice begins when someone trusts his or her capacity for awakening, or Buddha-nature. You have to believe in yourself. This is part of the meaning of taking refuge. The world is screwed up and sorrowful, so we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha: we put our faith in the enlightened mind, in the teachings of liberation, and in the community of those who are committed to the good work. Faith in a Mahayana context connotes an attitude of devotion, commitment, respect, trust, and openness to learning. It is not the same as accepting a doctrine at face value because you are told to do so; it is not doctrinaire. At the risk of over-generalizing, in my experience Buddhists are better debaters than believers.

If you would like to follow along with the discussion, purchase a copy of the Hakeda translation of The Awakening of Faith at a bookseller of your choice, or find it at the library. I recommend checking for used copies through Bookfinder.

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